What is it? What does it mean for an artist?
Success don’t come easy
Success is hard to find
Some men say it's gold and riches
But I don’t need no gold mine
- Percy Sledge, Success
Not too long ago I went to visit a colleague at his studio. He wanted to know what I thought was necessary for “success.” He’d been asking other colleagues, artists, businessmen: what is the difference between Christopher Wool and some kid making abstract paintings in Bushwick in total obscurity? They all agreed that it came down primarily to this: relationships and connections. Christopher Wool knew the right people. Unkown kid in Bushwick either did not or did not know how to effectively use those relationships. I couldn’t have agreed less.
This line of thinking hinges on a common view of what it takes to be successful and it’s not without some validity. One of Bob Dylan’s great skills, according to people who knew him in the early 60s, was honing in on the person in the room who could do the most to help him — and obviously he was very successful at it. Of course, his songs were good and he knew it and something about fate and a confluence of factors named and unnamed conspired to have him become the person who he became. There were plenty of young folk singers promoting their work in New York at the time, and not every one of them became Bob Dylan or changed culture the way he did.
This argument about connections and relationships also has an ugly flip-side, which is envy and an excuse for one’s own lack of success: Oh, of course so and so is successful s/he has the right connections. I’ve seen this argument in effect many times and have surely used it myself. At an opening for an acquaintance at a museum, I commented to a colleague about how that acquaintance’s work had grown enormously in scale and ambition since I’d last seen the work. This colleague replied, “Of course it has, he has Gallery X behind him.”
This is not really a valid argument, not just because it comes from a place of envy, but also because it doesn’t logically hold at all. I’ve known the artist in question since before he became successful. I also know a little bit about how it happened. And yes, his girlfriend did work at the time for his now gallerist. That, of course, got him a studio visit. But not everybody who gets a studio visit gets a solo exhibition. And not everyone who gets a solo exhibition gets a second and third one, let alone a museum show. Each of those steps has to be successful in order for the next to occur. His gallerist is highly successful for a reason. He’s not going to just give a show to the boyfriend of one of his employees. That’s how he might become aware of the work, but not a reason to heavily invest in someone’s career. The work has to be solid and it has to say something and people have to respond to it.
For me, there are three factors which are most important for being a successful artist: Perserverance in the face of potentially endless adversity. Having a coherent body of work that reflects a unique point of view. And having that point of view come from a place deep within that makes it necessary that all you can say is that.
Perserverance in the face of potentially endless adversity.
It sounds like a trite point from a self-help book, but it’s really true: The only reason to ever really fail is to quit. If a person is not willing to put up with years of hardship with little or no chance of reward, he or she should probably not become an artist. This means you have to believe in what you’re doing even if not a single other person seems to care or notice, because most of the time that’s how it’s going to seem.
It’s hard to get to this point, because we all yearn for some kind of validation and affirmation, but to truly be a successful artist, I believe, you have operate entirely from a place of faith, self-motivation and discipline. Even if you make it to some level of financial or institutional success, there will still be plenty of adversity, negative reviews of your work, obstacles, situations that undercut or undermine you along with other inevitable ups and downs. All of the validation you need has to come entirely from within.
My mom was once listening to NPR and they were interviewing successful people. They determined that the only factor that they had in common was not giving up. Similarly, I once saw an exhibition with handprints of famous artists (Duchamp, Breton, Dali) done by the psychoanalyst Charlotte Wolff as reproduced by Hans-Peter Feldman. Take it for what you will, but her analysis of the artists’ hands — which she took as reflecting their personality through evolution — was, again, that the only personality trait they all shared in common was a kind of single-minded, dogged determination.
Having a coherent body of work that reflects a unique point of view.
A very successful British curator once said to me, “Art is all about critical mass. Anyone can make one or two good works. You need to see a whole body of work to really judge an artist.” This is true. People need to see: can this artist be consistent? Does she or he have something unique to say?
Also you can often only understand what an artist is driving at after seeing a large body of work. For example, if you see just one of the paintings from my iPhone self-portrait series, you may not understand it. But if you see a group of them you might start to understand: this is not about my favorite songs. The songs in the paintings are often not the best known songs or even albums by these artists. But each of the artists and songs chosen has a specific meaning and direct relevance to my life and together they start to tell a story where even the time of day, the amount of battery power and the volume become factors. That’s why they’re self-portraits.
About six years ago an older conceptual artist did a studio visit with me. He accused me of not uniquely enough expressing my personal point of view, of determining what I had to say that nobody else could say in the same way, and he was right. At the time my work was undergoing a transformation due to personal circumstances.
Certain traumatic events in my life meant that the work I had been previously making no longer seemed to express the world as I saw it and I started to experiment to find a language to express what I now felt. I was starting to make some progress with that, but at the time of the studio visit I was starting to fall into the trap of blindly producing work without considering deeply enough why I was making it. And while these steps were necessary and ultimately fruitful, I needed to end the experimenting phase and start to refine and think more about the “why.”
Only after moving to New York in 2013 did I start to really find my own unique artistic voice, and this was because I had lost everything: my fiancée, my home, my entire life and that had all been preceded by a few years of traumatic events leading up to it. Previous to that, when I was making an artwork or writing a song, I would try to make something that I would enjoy, that I would think was good and would perhaps meet the approval of my colleagues, something that I would want to see or hear. After 2013 I didn’t care about that anymore. Every work I make now is because I have a deep emotional need to say that specific thing in that specific way.
This of course begs the question, which is valid: why should someone care about your unique point of view? As an answer to this I like to retell a famous story about James Joyce. When he had just finished Ulysses his friends took him out to celebrate. At a bar in Paris that night another Irish writer came up to him. Joyce asked, “Are you writing about Dublin?” The other writer responded no, he thought that Ireland was too provincial and had to orient itself toward a broader European tradition. Joyce quipped that this was exactly wrong. “If I can get Dublin right, then I can get everything right, because within the particular is contained the universal.”
If we truly know ourselves and get ourselves right, what’s true for us will be true for other people, too. That’s why people can still relate to what some provincial Irishmen did in Dublin in 1904. This is also why people respond to pop music. The kinds of emotions the singer is expressing, while unique to their lives, stand in for the kinds of emotions that all of us experience at some point.
This is also why we shouldn’t be too covetous of our ideas or methods. As St. Augustine rightly points out, we can only truly ever individually own falsehoods and errors, because that which is true is the common property of all. If we’re generous with our ideas we’ll be forced to come up with more, whereas when we hold on to a small thing, that’s all we have and it inevitably withers and decays. What’s important is not the idea or the method, but how it’s used and for what reason, and if it’s used in a way that is specific or true to the individual, it’s meaning will transcend the individual.
Having that point of view come from a place deep within that makes it necessary that all you can say is that.
Which brings me to my last point. I’ve been lucky enough to have been around the art world for over 15 years, and I’ve had the chance to see many people I know go from obscurity to highly visible success. I’ve also had the opportunity to see artists I know go from success back to obscurity.
One of my early experiences in the art world was working for a gallery where one of the artists was suddenly the most talked about artists at that moment. Within a year there was a devastating backlash and within a short time after that this artist retreated and essentially disappeared from the map. This was after having many major museum shows and a lauded solo presentation at Art Basel, etc.
While I think this artist was expressing his unique point of view, he ultimately treated his subject matter a bit too superficially and then rapidly scaled it up without considering it deeply enough. Pretty soon, with that level of visibility, the work didn’t hold up to scrutiny.
I recently read an interview in The New York Times with another artist from this same circle who maintained his success a bit longer, but ultimately let the pressure get to him and he sank into heavy drug use and had a breakdown. Now he’s clean and living upstate. These two artists, while their work certainly had a lot of merit, believed too readily in the hedonistic world that was thrown up around them and they let it consume them.
I also know many artists who strategically positioned their work to some degree of success and then found themselves trapped in a style that after a while they didn’t believe in any longer and had a great deal of difficulty escaping. That’s why I maintain the only reason to make a work of art is because you have a strong emotional need to say this specific thing in this specific way. Artists like Mike Kelley clearly did this and was able to constantly adapt his approach to the subject matter, although he did claim toward the end of his life that he would have been happier just making paintings alone in his studio.
The point, I suppose, is about longevity as an artist. If you truly have something to say and have that driving your work you can learn, to some extent, to block out the rest of the noise and pursue your vision in a single-minded way. Success, institutional recognition, sales, etc. then become peripheral phenomena and not the goal in and of itself. They follow from the vision and not the other way around. Or they never come. Either way, it’s fine.
Although everyone’s story and artistic trajectory is fundamentally different, there are of course ways to manufacture some kind of success, as my colleague at the beginning of this essay suggested. You can strategically decide you’re going to make work X, with some discipline make a body of that work and then aggressively promote it and you can probably find a gallery and with a bit of luck find some degree of the success you’re looking for. But we are ultimately what we seek and if that is your primary goal, then you’ll be left with the rewards of that goal, which include being left there standing with little you believe in and little to show for it once the tastes and trends inevitably shift.
So I guess it comes down to the question of how we define success: Does success mean affirmation and validation and financial reward? Or does success mean cultivating and expressing intrinsic values that serve as a driving engine for constant curiosity and intellectual growth over the course of a lifetime? I would hope it means the latter.
Berlin, July 10th, 2017